Living the legend: Mandan life on display

Pint-sized adventurers who wander down the hall to the Back Gallery at the Virginia Discovery Museum often find themselves in another world. Until May 4, these explorers can tread in the tracks of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who settled in for the winter of 1804 with the Mandan Indian tribe in North Dakota. 
Young natives can dress up in brightly decorated fringed costumes and play in the gardens tended by Mandan women where corn, sunflowers, beans, and squash were grown. Tobacco grew there, too, but that was the territory of the men who used it for ceremonial purposes only… smoking the peace pipe, for example (a replica of which is displayed nearby).
Aspiring hunters can do some target practice with a hoop-toss game where they try to pitch an ear of corn through a rolling ring. (It’s not as easy as you think.) To help hunters bring back the buffalo, there’s a device called a “travois” that lashes the burden to two long poles strapped to a horse or dog to be dragged back to the village.
A bull boat was also used to transport people and objects, and the folks at the museum have fashioned a very authentic example. They’ve woven together a sapling shell into a half-sphere frame, then covered it with a real buffalo hide (presumably a bull– hence the name). Kids can climb in and rock the boat as they pretend to sail down the Missouri River.
The biggest attraction to the exhibit by far, though, is a 14-foot diameter rendition of a Mandan home: the earth lodge. Again with as much authenticity as they could muster, museum folks patted a mud-like compound onto a domed wooden frame at least 10-feet high. A realistic “fire” burns within, and a collection of carved wooden bowls stacked on the dirt floor (well, sort of) invites the visitor to stay for supper. A four-panel Lee Morrison-inspired mural depicts a scene from the interior of an Indian earth lodge and gives a sense of how the Mandan lived, complete with stable space for dogs and horses.
A sign language corner invites kids to use pictographs to “read” a story or write their own on a buffalo hide or tipi. Period maps adorn the walls along with replica displays of everything from clothing to the coins Lewis and Clark traded for food and good will.
For young travelers who need to experience to understand, “Up from the Earth” is a must-see additions to the Lewis and Clark bicentennial extravaganza.

“Up from the Earth: The Mandan Way of Life” hovers in the Back Gallery of the Virginia Discovery Museum until May 4. The exhibit is included in the price of admission. East End of the Downtown Mall. 977-1025. www,vadm.org.